“Superior never gives up her dead,” goes the saying, made famous by Gordon Lightfoot in his 1976 song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. And it’s true: the extremely cold water in this greatest of the Great Lakes inhibits oxygen-producing bacteria growth in shipwreck victims’ bodies, preventing them from bobbing to the surface. Thus, when you go down on a wreck, you’re likely to stay down. This is on my mind not only because I’m exploring the SS Emperor, a 525-foot (160m) bulk freighter that sank in 1947, taking with her 12 crew members, but also because my drysuit is steadily filling with water that is barely above freezing.
Every time I press the fill valve on my chest to add precious air to my suit, I get a blast of 36ºF (2.2ºC) water instead. I’m hovering over the Emperor’s aft coal bunker at 140 feet (42.6m), and at that depth my bottom time is limited to about 13 minutes before it becomes a decompression dive. With a suit full of icy water, I wouldn’t last long on a deco hang (a decompression stop on the way back to the surface). But I want to see this thing before I ascend. Sitting upright and intact, the massive ship is one of the finest wreck dives in the world. I clench my regulator mouthpiece between my teeth and try not to think about the icy water pooling in my boots, soaking my wool socks and freezing my feet. I drift over the maw of the coal bunker, past a ventilation funnel and cruise past the open windows and crew cabin doors. Bunk beds and desks remain inside amid scattered debris, evidence of how quickly the ship went down after running aground on the Canoe Rocks shoal.